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Cheick, an immigrant student from Mali, was told—illegally—that he had to leave high school and transfer to a high school equivalency program.

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Press Releases

04.12.2021 | Today, more than 100 organizations sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio making the point that 3-K and Pre-K will never be “for all” until the City addresses the continuing shortage of seats in preschool special education classes—a shortage that has left young children with disabilities who have a legal right to such a class sitting at home or in settings that cannot provide the support they need. 

While the Mayor recently announced plans to expand 3-K to every school district this September, the City is falling far short of providing preschool special education classes to all children who require these smaller classes with trained special education teachers.  Prior to the pandemic, the City was projecting a shortage of 1,000-2,000 preschool special class seats, with a disproportionate need in the Bronx.  While COVID-19 has led to a temporary decline in preschool special education referrals this year, the City still has a current shortfall of hundreds of seats in the classes that serve preschoolers with the most significant needs.  And the demand for preschool special education classes will likely only increase in the coming months, as children with disabilities who missed out on months of services during the pandemic are identified as needing more intensive intervention.

“While the Mayor has announced an expansion of 3-K, my child has been waiting for three months for a seat in his legally required preschool special education class,” said Dilia Tejeda, the parent of three-year-old Devyn.  “I know how important it is for my child, who is on the autism spectrum, to get help now, and do not understand why the Mayor would announce a 3-K expansion without also addressing the shortage of seats for children with disabilities.  Why is my child not a priority?” 

Contributing to the shortage has been the closure of preschool special education programs run by community-based organizations (CBOs).  Instead of assisting CBOs, the City recently made the problem worse by excluding preschool special education teachers from an agreement to raise the starting salaries of 3-K and Pre-K teachers at CBOs to that of public school teachers, leading teachers of preschool special education classes to pursue higher-paid teaching jobs elsewhere.

With the City poised to receive a historic increase in education funding, including $6.9 billion from the federal government, the groups are calling on the Mayor to ensure a preschool special education class seat for every child who requires one and to extend supports offered to 3-K and Pre-K programs, including salary parity for teachers, to preschool special education programs run by community-based organizations.

Last week, the New York City Council recommended that the City invest $85 million in this year’s budget to address the shortage of preschool special education classes and provide salary parity to preschool special education class teachers.

“We are tired of waiting for the City to address the needs of preschoolers with disabilities while the Mayor announces expansion after expansion of other programs,” said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York.  “A dark cloud will hang over the Mayor’s legacy on early childhood education unless he ensures there are seats for all children, including those with the most significant disabilities.”

View the press release [PDF]
Read the letter [PDF]

03.24.2021 | Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) issued the following response to Mayor de Blasio’s announcement that New York City plans to use federal COVID-19 education relief funding to expand 3-K citywide: 

While AFC has strongly supported this Administration’s commitment to expanding access to early childhood education, 3-K and Pre-K will not be universal until the City addresses the continuing shortage of seats in preschool special education classes—a shortage that has left young children with disabilities sitting at home or in settings that cannot provide the support they need, in violation of their legal rights. 

Data released by the Department of Education (DOE) just last week confirmed what we have been seeing on the ground for months: even this spring—in a year when the pandemic has led to a steep decline in preschool special education enrollment—the City has a shortfall of hundreds of seats in 6- and 8-student classes, which serve preschoolers with the most significant needs. We have heard from families desperate for help because their children with autism or other complex disabilities were going without appropriate services because there were no available seats in the type of class they needed. Yet, the Mayor’s announcement today will do nothing to help these children.

“3-K and Pre-K will never be ‘for all’ while preschoolers with disabilities are sitting at home without the classes they need,” said Kim Sweet, AFC’s Executive Director. “Announcing a major expansion of 3-K with no plan to provide legally required classes to preschoolers with disabilities is a slap in the face to parents whose children need additional help—and is a violation of children’s civil rights.”

The demand for preschool special education classes will likely only increase in the coming months, as children with disabilities who missed out on months of services during the pandemic are identified as needing more intensive intervention. Prior to the pandemic, the City had projected a shortage of 1,000-2,000 preschool special class seats with a disproportionate need in the Bronx.

“Failing to provide a preschool special education class seat for every child who needs one is shortsighted and discriminatory, in addition to illegal,” said Kim Sweet. “A child’s early years provide the greatest opportunity for intervention. We urge the City to address the shortage of special class seats and ensure that the Mayor’s legacy includes a seat for every preschooler in New York City, including those with disabilities.”

View news release as a PDF

first page of sign-on letter03.09.2021 | Today, more than 100 education and advocacy organizations and over 150 parents, educators, and other individuals from across New York State sent a letter to the New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department (NYSED), urging them to give students aging out of school this year the opportunity to return to high school for the 2021-22 school year, rather than lose their chance to earn a high school diploma because of COVID-19.

New Yorkers have the right to attend school to work toward a high school diploma until the end of the school year in which they turn 21. Although most students who graduate do so in four years, a small subset of young people — disproportionately students of color, English Language Learners (ELLs), and students with disabilities — need five, six, or even seven years to finish high school. Each year, roughly 2,000-3,000 students across New York State graduate after their sixth year of high school.

Given the massive educational disruptions caused by COVID-19, NYSED and the Board of Regents issued guidance last June strongly encouraging schools to allow 21-year-olds who would otherwise be aging out of school in 2020 to return for the summer and, if necessary, attend high school this year to complete their education. As the pandemic continues, it is critical that the State immediately extend this guidance so that students who turn 21 during this school year can return for the 2021-22 school year to complete coursework or meet special education transition goals.

One young person who benefited from the extra time in school this year is Kenny Abraham, a 21-year-old who graduated in January 2021.  Kenny, an English Language Learner from Haiti, worked multiple jobs throughout high school to help support his mother and two younger siblings, which made it difficult to keep up with his education.  Kenny had fallen further behind due to the stress of the pandemic — at one point working three jobs to help his family. He would have aged out of school without a diploma in June 2020, but the State’s policy allowed him to reenroll and finish his diploma requirements at the Downtown Brooklyn Young Adult Borough Center (YABC).

“When the pandemic started, I was about to turn 21, so I thought my chance for a high school diploma was over,” Kenny Abraham said.  “When I found out I was allowed to stay in high school, I was so excited that I could finish with help from teachers and school staff who knew me. Other students deserve to get the same chance I did.”

The letter also urges NYSED to, once again, extend eligibility to students with disabilities who need more time to work toward their postsecondary transition goals. Shari DiStefano’s daughter Brianna turned 21 in December and will age out of her District 75 high school program in June. Before the pandemic, Brianna was preparing for life after high school by working in the school store, participating in a cooking program, and learning to use a calculator and cash register.  When her school went remote in March 2020, Brianna, who has autism, could no longer participate in these programs.

“Schools are doing their best. But without in-person, hands-on supports, I’ve watched Brianna’s skills regress significantly,” said Ms. DiStefano. “Students like Brianna have already missed out on a critical year of transition supports that simply cannot be provided remotely. We’re just asking for her to have the opportunity to make up those experiences so she can be ready for life after high school.”

“With so many students falling behind this year, the State should extend the age students can stay in school and give young people the last chance they need to earn a high school diploma,” said Ashley Grant, Director of the Postsecondary Readiness Project at Advocates for Children of New York and Coordinator of the statewide Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma.

View the press release [PDF]
Read the letter [PDF]

02.26.2021 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to the announcement that Chancellor Carranza would be stepping down from his position: 

We thank Chancellor Carranza for his three years of dedicated leadership and hard work on behalf of New York City students and their families, especially in the face of unprecedented challenges this past year. 

We also congratulate Meisha Porter on her historic appointment as the first Black woman to lead New York City's school system. She definitely has her work cut out for her.  At this critical moment, NYC needs an ambitious education recovery plan to restore hope and opportunity to a generation of students that has experienced significant learning loss and trauma.  We look forward to working with the incoming Chancellor to meet the needs of students and their families in the challenging months ahead. 

View the statement as a PDF

02.11.2021 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) issued the following response to the release of the New York City Department of Education (DOE)’s special education data report for the months of July through October 2020, and as of mid-January 2021: 

Today, as required by city law, the DOE released quarterly, district-level data on special education service delivery for the first time—an important step towards greater transparency for the City’s schools. We appreciate that the DOE went beyond what is legally required and also provided updated data as of mid-January. While the public has had access to year-end data since 2015, these new reports will provide important context on how many students with disabilities are and are not receiving their mandated instruction and services at various points throughout the school year—not just as of June. The inclusion of district- and school-level data, rather than just Citywide totals, will allow parents and advocates to assess how well their local schools are serving students with disabilities. 

“With this increased transparency, individual communities will be better able to understand and respond to what’s happening on the ground and advocate for targeted support and resources,” said Maggie Moroff, Senior Special Education Policy Coordinator at AFC. “We strongly urge the DOE to build on this progress and provide parents online access to their children’s special education records in real-time so they can track the services their children are and are not currently receiving.”

While we are pleased that the DOE released district-level, quarterly reports for the first time, the data show how much work remains to serve students with disabilities, particularly in light of the challenges caused by the pandemic. According to the data, as of January 18, nearly one in four students with disabilities was still not fully receiving their special education instruction, and it is particularly concerning that 81,920 students—46% of the City’s students with disabilities—were not yet fully served as of November 2. The data also show significant disparities between districts. For example, only 26% of students in District 5 in Harlem whose IEPs recommended an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) class were in such a placement by November 2, compared to 72% of students who needed an ICT class in Districts 22 (Flatlands and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn) and 27 (Southeast Queens).

Moreover, it is important to remember that these numbers understate the true extent of unmet need stemming from the pandemic. While we appreciate that many students with disabilities have been prioritized for full-time in-person instruction, the vast majority of City students are still learning remotely some or all of the time, and many students with disabilities have experienced significant regression because their special education services simply do not translate to an online setting. We have also heard from families of students counted as “fully served” who are going without their required special education teacher on days of remote learning or whose classes are larger than the legal limits.

Moroff noted, “The data released today should be a call to action. Our federal, state, and city governments need to step up with a major investment to help students with disabilities make up for the learning loss they have experienced and ensure they get the evaluations, services, and instruction they have the right to receive going forward.” 

View the press release [PDF]

02.01.2021 | Last week, a federal judge ordered that a Special Master be appointed over the New York City Department of Education’s (DOE) implementation of hearing orders to provide or pay for services for students with disabilities.  

When the DOE fails to provide appropriate educational services or school placements to students with disabilities, their parents may request an impartial hearing to enforce their children’s rights.  Following the hearing, an impartial hearing officer can order the DOE to provide services to a student or pay the cost of services or school tuition, but for years the DOE has failed to implement these favorable hearing orders in a timely fashion. Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) and Milbank LLP had filed the motion requesting the Special Master in connection with the class action lawsuit, L.V. v. New York City Department of Education, after years of the DOE failing to provide the ordered services that students with disabilities required.  For example, between October 24, 2018 and January 21, 2019, the DOE implemented only 19.6% of hearing orders within the required 35 days.

Families request hearings as a last resort, after the DOE has denied their children the services or school placements they need to learn.  Further delays in implementing these orders only exacerbate the harm to students with disabilities, many of whom have had to wait months to receive services they were awarded by an impartial hearing officer, and to their families, some of whom have waited up to a year to receive ordered reimbursement for services, causing financial hardship.  Sustained delays in payment and implementation have resulted in providers terminating services, schools barring enrollment, and students who must wait even longer without the services and instruction that they need.

“For too many years, students with disabilities have been harmed by the DOE’s failures in providing the services they need.  We are hopeful that the Special Master will improve the DOE’s implementation process so students will not have to wait any longer for ordered services,” said Rebecca Shore, AFC’s Director of Litigation.  

”The appointment of a special master is the latest step in our 14-year saga to force the DOE to fulfill their legal obligation to provide educational services to students with disabilities in a timely manner,” said Erik Wilson, an associate at Millbank.  “The DOE’s longstanding abdication of those responsibilities has caused immense harm to these students, their families, and the schools and providers of these services.  We hope that court-ordered improvements to DOE’s systems and processes—based on the recommendations of an independent expert special master—will finally bring DOE into compliance and provide much-needed relief to those who rely on DOE for providing such services.”

Read the decision [PDF]
View the press release [PDF]

01.15.2021 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) released a new data brief, Delayed Interventions: Early Indicators of the Pandemic’s Impact on Infants and Toddlers, showing a steep decline during the COVID-19 pandemic in the number of infants and toddlers referred to the New York City Early Intervention (EI) program to address concerns about their development.  As a result, thousands of young children with developmental delays or disabilities missed the chance for intervention at the time it is most effective.

The first few years of life, when the brain is developing rapidly, offer a critical window of opportunity to intervene and maximize the positive impact of services like speech and physical therapy on a child’s development, and Early Intervention—part of the federal special education law—provides such services to zero-to-three-year-old children with developmental delays or disabilities. When COVID-19 closed child care programs, led parents to postpone routine visits to the pediatrician, and otherwise disrupted daily life for families with young children, this window slammed shut for thousands of infants and toddlers in New York City. The brief released today, which analyzes data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), shows that:

  • In late March and early April 2020, there was an 82% drop-off, compared to the beginning of the year, in the average number of children referred to EI each week due to concerns about their development.
  • An estimated 3,000–6,000 young children in New York City were never identified as potentially having a developmental delay or disability. Instead of being evaluated to determine their eligibility for the EI program and potentially receiving services to support their healthy development, these children have simply fallen off the radar—and thus may require more intensive, and expensive, special education services later on.
  • The total number of infants and toddlers receiving EI services between July and September 2020 was 15% lower than the same time period in 2019, a difference of nearly 2,900 children.

In addition, many children with developmental delays and disabilities who were receiving EI services prior to the pandemic stopped getting their legally mandated services after the City shut down in March, whether due to a lack of technology, because teletherapy proved ineffective, or because helping children under age 3 participate in remote services proved logistically impossible for some working parents.  According to phone surveys conducted by DOHMH, which runs the EI program, between April and mid-June, nearly one in four families (24%) were not receiving any of their EI services as of the time they were surveyed.

“Infants and toddlers cannot afford to wait for critically important Early Intervention services,” said Kim Sweet, AFC’s Executive Director. “The State and City need to take quick action to ensure young children with developmental delays and disabilities get the services they need right away.”

While the analysis focuses on data from New York City, statewide data show similar trends. Across New York State, 6,000 fewer children were enrolled in the EI program between July and September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.

The brief makes a number of recommendations to New York State and City for addressing the pandemic’s impact on the Early Intervention program, including:

  • Launching an outreach campaign to families and developing a comprehensive plan for developmental screenings to ensure young children are connected to services as soon as possible when a concern is identified;
  • Identifying and addressing barriers to participation in EI during the pandemic, including by providing access to technology needed for remote evaluations and services;
  • Providing make-up services to children who missed out on mandated therapies during the pandemic; and
  • Increasing funding in the State budget for Early Intervention and preschool special education, including by requiring health insurance companies to contribute more to the cost of EI, and preparing for a potential post-COVID surge in referrals.

View the press release [PDF]
Read the data brief [PDF]

12.03.2020 | Today, the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS), a project of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), posted new data showing that more than 111,000 New York City students—approximately one in ten children enrolled in district or charter schools—were identified as homeless during the 2019-20 school year. In the Bronx, approximately one in six students was homeless.

The data, which come from the New York State Education Department, show that more than 32,700 students were living in City shelters, while approximately 73,000 were ‘doubled-up’ in temporary shared housing situations. An additional roughly 31,900 public school students in New York State, outside of the five boroughs, were also identified as homeless last year, for a total of more than 143,500 students Statewide.

The number of New York City students experiencing homelessness has now topped 100,000—a population larger than the entire public school enrollment of the state of Vermont—for five consecutive years. While the 2019-20 count represents a decline of 2.2% from the prior school year, the closure of school buildings due to COVID-19 likely impeded schools’ ability to identify students experiencing homelessness, as the shift to remote learning made it less likely that schools would become aware of changes to students’ housing situations. 

“The vast scale of student homelessness in New York City demands urgent attention,” said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children. “If these children comprised their own city, it would be larger than Albany, and their numbers may skyrocket even further after the state eviction moratorium is lifted, The City must act now to put more support in place for students who are homeless.”

Even before the pandemic, students experiencing homelessness —85% of whom are Black or Hispanic—faced tremendous obstacles to success in school. Only 29% of those in grades 3-8 were reading proficiently in 2019, 20 percentage points lower than the rate for their permanently housed peers. COVID-19 has further magnified these challenges. For many students who are homeless, school is a lifeline—the one place where they have a sense of stability and normalcy. Remote learning, in contrast, may mean trying to complete assignments on a smartphone in the middle of a noisy and overcrowded room. 

City Hall and the DOE must take action to better support these students, who are at risk of falling further behind.

  • The City must ensure that every student who is homeless has the technology needed to participate in remote learning. More than eight months after school buildings closed, some students living in City shelters are still struggling to get online because their shelter lacks both Wi-Fi and adequate cellular reception to use their DOE iPad, while others have not even received an iPad in the first place. The DOE must expedite iPad delivery, install Wi-Fi in shelters as quickly as possible, and expand tech support for students struggling to use their devices, including by providing on-site support at shelters. 
  • The City must use attendance data to reach out to all families of students who are homeless and especially those in shelter who have not been regularly engaging in remote learning and identify and resolve the barriers that are keeping them out of school. In the spring, students living in shelter had the lowest rate of participation in remote learning of any student subgroup—more than 13 percentage points below the Citywide rate.  
  • The City must ensure there is adequate staff to support the education of students who are homeless. Due to hiring freezes and budget cuts, the DOE has lost more than 20 staff members who focus on serving this population.  With more than 100,000 students experiencing homelessness, the City must immediately restore these positions and fully staff the team.
  • The City should offer full-time in-person instruction to all students who are homeless whose families want this option, given the immense challenges so many are continuing to experience with remote learning.
  • Given the months of lost learning time, the City must start planning to get students who are homeless back on track after the pandemic.

“Learning from home is much harder when you don’t have a permanent home,” said Kim Sweet. “The City must ensure that every student who is homeless has the technology and support they need during this period of remote and hybrid learning. And as the public health situation evolves, we need to prioritize offering these students the option of getting back into the classroom full-time and providing them with the help they need to make up for lost learning.”

Download the complete data
View news release as a PDF

11.23.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York (“AFC”) and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP filed a class action complaint in federal court against the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) and New York State Education Department (“NYSED”) on behalf of students with disabilities who have not received an appropriate education during the time of remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs are asking the Court to require the DOE to create a system to provide make-up educational services to address the resulting learning loss.

When schools closed their physical spaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of students with disabilities in New York City were – and still are – unable to access appropriate services and programs during remote learning.  The loss in education and progress for these students becomes more pronounced every day that they do not receive all of the services mandated on their Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) in a way that is accessible and appropriate in consideration of each student’s disability.  For students with disabilities who are English Language or Multilingual Learners, or whose parents do not speak English, the challenges of accessing remote learning have been even more significant.

Chrystal Bell, one of the parents named as a plaintiff in the litigation, has a son who is deaf, blind, and non-verbal. As Ms. Bell explains, “My son cannot see, hear, or speak. How can he be expected to learn sitting in front of a computer all day, when he has no way to interact with his teachers or understand what they’re asking of him? My child just turned 21 and will now be considered too old to remain in his DOE high school. Without compensatory services, he will have lost more than a year of his education that he will never be able to get back.”

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), school districts must provide a free and appropriate education (“FAPE”) to all students with disabilities. When the school district fails to do so, the law requires that they must provide “compensatory services” to make up for the education and therapies that the student lost.  Although the widespread inability of the students to access their IEP-mandated services and program during remote learning has resulted in a denial of FAPE in violation of the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and New York Education Law, the DOE has not announced any plans — in the eight months since schools closed – to develop a system for identifying which students with disabilities require compensatory services, determining what services they need, and providing those services.

The complaint filed today asks that the DOE create an expedited and efficient process to provide make-up services for the instruction and services students with disabilities have lost during the period of remote learning, rather than requiring that each of the tens of thousands of parents of students with disabilities litigate individually to receive the services their children need and require.

Kim Sweet, Executive Director of AFC, explained, “Tens of thousands of students with disabilities have gone months without appropriate educational services, with many losing the progress they had made.  These students should receive the compensatory services they need as quickly as possible, without having to jump through cumbersome legal hurdles that will favor families able to afford lawyers and leave economically disadvantaged students behind.”

“We’re pleased to partner with AFC on this important class action, to attempt to rectify the disparities in education that students with disabilities have encountered in New York City due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Joshua Kipnees, Partner at Patterson Belknap. “City students with disabilities have been denied access to an appropriate education for the better part of a year, and we hope that today’s complaint brings justice and essential compensatory services to these students as quickly as possible.”

View the press release [PDF]
Read the class action complaint [PDF]

11.17.2020 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to the possibility of a systemwide shutdown of New York City’s schools:

Educating children is one of the most essential services the City provides, and the Mayor should do everything possible to keep schools open while keeping school communities safe.

As the Mayor has noted, nothing can adequately replace in-person instruction. Remote learning has been disastrous for many students, including many students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students experiencing homelessness. With a COVID-19 positivity rate well below the 9% threshold set by the State for school closures, and with bars, gyms, and indoor dining continuing to operate, the City should reexamine the need to close schools systemwide and should instead continue using a more targeted approach to closing individual schools when necessary.

While most students are only attending school on certain days each week, we are working with some families whose children with significant disabilities are attending school every day. After months of remote learning, these children are finally starting to make progress. And we continue to hear from families that they want more in-person instruction because remote learning does not work for their children. The Mayor must consider the enormous impact on these students – and the disruption to children and families – of a sudden systemwide shutdown.

While the City should do all it can to avoid a systemwide shutdown of schools, here are steps the City should take as it prepares for the possibility of closing schools:

  • The City should ensure that students with disabilities, students who are homeless or in foster care, and English Language Learners can continue to have the option of in-person instructional support, including access to in-person services for students with disabilities.
  • The City should expedite the delivery of iPads and significantly increase tech support. Tens of thousands of students are still waiting to get an iPad from the City, and others can’t get their iPads to work. Many students in shelter still can’t use their iPads because their shelters don’t have Wi-Fi or sufficient cellular reception. Getting tech support from the DOE can take weeks or months.
  • The City should establish a transition period prior to closure and ensure that schools have sufficient time to create printed materials for students and get them to students’ homes. Asking parents to rush to schools to pick up materials the afternoon before schools close is not feasible for many families and will leave behind students from historically marginalized communities. 
  • The City should develop and implement strategies to improve online learning.
  • The City should communicate with families in their language and not rely on e-mails written in English to let families know what is happening and how to get help. The City should ensure families without e-mail access have a way of reaching school staff when schools are closed by using, for example, a call forwarding system.
  • The City should expand Learning Bridges sites or other child care programs and must ensure these programs are prepared to serve all students, including students with disabilities.

The City should also provide another chance for parents to opt into blended learning this year. Having the opt-in period take place while the Mayor was warning of a possible systemwide school shutdown discouraged some parents from opting in even though remote learning has been difficult for their children.

The City must fight back against COVID-19 and avoid a repeat of the spring. But the Mayor noted today that schools have been “incredibly safe.” The City should avoid a system-wide closure unless absolutely necessary after exploring all possible alternatives. Children have already lost months of educational time they can never get back. Schools should be one of the last places to close—not the first.

Read the statement [PDF]